Woog’s World: Lots to learn from Westporter’s new book
Elephants have many more cells than humans. However, they don’t get cancer.
Eagles can see eight times the magnification of our own eyes. They also perceive ultraviolet light.
Bacteria defend themselves against viral attacks by cutting their own DNA.
Human beings can learn a lot from other living things — as small as microbes, as large as elephants and whales.
And what better way to learn about what we can learn than by reading Michael Hehenberger’s new book. The longtime Westport resident has just published “Our Animal Connection.”
In 339 pages, it explores the many ways we can learn about different species’ adaptations to extreme conditions, their evolution of special capabilities, and the ways they defend against predators and diseases. By studying the vast variety of life forms on earth — particularly the “top performers” — Hehenberger hopes that humans can learn and benefit.
It’s a dense book, but the author knows his stuff. He’s spent a lifetime studying scientific questions, then coming up with solutions, and he’s done it on both molecular and cosmic scales.
Born in Austria, Hehenberger earned a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry at the esteemed Uppsala University in Sweden. He worked for IBM in Europe, specializing in computational chemistry and biology, structural engineering, campus networks and high-performance computing. He moved in 1993 to their research center in San Jose, Calif.
Throughout his IBM career, Hehenberger led collaborations with academic and industrial life sciences organizations. The partnerships were based on joint desires to extend the frontiers of molecular biology, information-based medicine, bio-pharmaceutical research, unstructured data analytics, genomics and nanomedicine.
Three years later, he came east. IBM has facilities in Armonk, Yorktown Heights, White Plains and Somers, N.Y.. But, like many of the company’s employees, he found Fairfield County taxes and housing better than Westchester’s. He joined the large IBM contingent living in Westport.
His wife met a Wilton Road neighbor, Arlene Skutch, and took painting classes with her. Hehenberger traveled often, and was less involved in the town.
But when he retired in 2013, he joined the Y’s Men. Like many “retirees” in that organization, he kept working. He formed the HM NanoMed Partnership, which organizes conferences and pursues nonomedical and genomic research topics.
And Hehenberger decided to write a book.
“Nanomedicine: Science, Business, and Impact” was published two years later. Hehenberger describes nanotechnology’s intersection with life sciences and healthcare with depth and breadth.
His audience was politicians and businesspeople, including pharmaceutical and biotech executives. The book good excellent feedback. But his publisher priced it high — nearly $100 — so sales were limited.
Hehenberger’s daughter, who has worked with Johnson & Johnson, McKinsey and Harvard, has diabetes. Insulin was first extracted from pigs and cattle. Hehenberger donated a kidney to his daughter, but knows that additional help in fighting the disease could come from animals.
He planned his next book — the one about what we can learn from animals — as a collaborative effort with a colleague, Zhi Xia, and his daughter. But she got busy, starting a company for patients with chronic diseases, and raising a child, so only he and Zhi worked together.
Zhi is co-founder of BGI, one of the world’s foremost genome sequencing companies. He has published dozens of academic papers and 14 books. They are professional colleagues and share a love for mountains too. Together, they’ve traveled to Tibet and the Mount Everest base camp.
The message of their new book, which just started shipping, is simple, Hehenberger says: “We need to respect animals, and all living organisms. We can learn a lot from them.”
While the human brain is impressive, he notes — enabling us to invent microscopes to study tiny organisms and telescopes to search the universe — our visual perception can’t compare to birds of prey, or even certain insects.
Although we are proud of our ability to run, jump, swim and climb mountains, our best Olympic performances lag behind potential animal competitors.
Our resistance to diseases and the way we recover from injuries are other areas where human performance is “not always iimpressive.”
The audience for “Our Animal Connection” is, the author says, “anyone interested in animals, science, evolution and our planet.”
Unfortunately, it too is priced high: $75.95 for hardcover and $79.95 for Kindle. Hehenberger worries it won’t reach as many readers as he’d like (he’s working on discounts: email email@example.com. He’s also hoping for a paperback edition).
As for his passion for mountains, Hehenberger is in the process of comparing the DNA of legendary climbers, like Tibetans, with those of people who live at lower altitudes. The way that mountain dwellers have evolved to deal with hypoxia may have relevance for COPD and cancer.
Who knows? It may also be the subject of his next book.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.